Should I Apply Early?


As the application season gets into full swing, I field lots of questions about whether a student should apply early.  This question really isn’t a timeline question; it is a strategic question.  Strategy should be decided only after you have done a proper analysis.  In this case, the analysis involves 4 steps. In order to help you understand how to do the analysis, I am going to walk you through it here using Kim, a rising senior at All-American High School in a western suburb of Boston as an example. 

Kim is intent on staying on the East Coast and after a million visits, lots of consultation of Naviance scattergrams and other advice (including some from her independent college counselor), she has settled on the following college list: Harvard, Boston College (BC), Boston University (BU), University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMA), Georgetown, George Washington University (GW), American University, University of Virginia (UVa), Columbia, and New York University (NYU).

Step 1:  Research what “early” options are available at the colleges on your list.   

Not all “early” options work the same way and many colleges now have MULTIPLE “early” options.  So do your research and pay attention to the fine print.  This little cheat sheet of the types of early application options will help make your research easier because it will give you a basic outline of the four types of early programs. 

 In Kim’s case, it breaks out this way:  

  • Early Decision is available at: BU, GW, American, Columbia, and NYU.    
  • Restrictive Early Action is available at:  BC. 
  • Early Action is available at: Harvard, UMA, Georgetown, and UVa.   
  • Other Kind of Early is available at: None.  

Step 2:  Evaluate whether you can actually prepare and submit your best application by the early deadline.  

At the end of the day, the single best application strategy is to PRESENT YOUR BEST APPLICATION.  If you think of your application as composed of three “profiles” of you – your academic profile, your activities profile, and your personal profile – it is relatively easy to determine whether you are in a position to prepare and submit your best application by the early deadline.    

In Kim’s case, here is her situation:  

  • Academic Profile:  She finished 11th grade with her best grades ever and she is currently ranked in the top decile of her class.  She is enrolled for a very rigorous 12th grade year and she is a bit worried that she won’t stay in the top decile for long.  She has taken the SAT twice and her SAT superscore is 2150.  She has taken 2 SAT Subject Tests – World History (650) and Math 2 (720). 
  • Activity Profile:  Her big claim to fame is her leadership activities.  She was elected as a youth representative to her town government and has already served one year and will finish her term this year.  She won rave reviews for a town day of service – she negotiated with all the local middle and high schools to get an excused absence for all who participated and she turned out three times as many youth as had ever turned out before.  She was elected president of the Student Government and begins her term in the fall.  She has a clever idea for a new Green Initiative for the school that would be both a school fundraiser and improve the local environment, but it won’t get underway until the fall and she won’t have any outcomes to report until late spring.  She is a varsity basketball player and has a chance at captain, but she won’t know until early to mid-November. 
  • Personal Profile:  She is well liked and well respected by peers, teachers, and community leaders.  She will sail through the character evaluation.   
Kim’s obviously a strong applicant, but is there any “room for improvement” in between the deadlines for “early” and “regular” application?  If not, then she is ready to apply early.  What is that time frame in Kim's case?  Ah.  Here’s where it is important for you to have read the fine print of the early programs.   The fine print reveals that all have early application deadlines between November 1 and November 15, but that NYU and GW have TWO early application deadlines and the later of the two deadlines is the same as the regular application deadline.   All of the colleges have regular application deadlines in early January.  So what could Kim do between November 1 and January 1 that she can't do before November 1?  (And remember Kim might be able to have her cake and eat it too if she wants to apply early to NYU and GW.)  
  • Academic Profile:  Hard to know if her grades and class rank will hold, so applying early and having the admissions office act on her 11th grade performance might be in her best interest.  But, she has a better chance of improving her test scores if she has more opportunities to retake tests.  Realistically though, her SAT score is probably not going to move much, so not an issue for those tests.  But she could take a different set of Subject Tests and perhaps raise those.  So can she do that in October or does she need the extra test dates in November and December?  Kim thinks she can do those in October, so no obstacle there.
  • Activity Profile:  Having her “leadership” fortified by getting the Green Initiative underway as well as (hopefully) being elected captain of the basketball team would be great, but not strictly necessary and probably not worth delaying for.  She can always “update” her application with this kind of news.   
  • Personal Profile:  She is ready to roll.   
Bottom line…. Kim could definitely apply early and in fact, it might even be in her best interest!  So let’s move along and see if it really matters to her odds for admission.   

Step 3:  Determine whether the early options actually improve the odds for admission (assuming that you are applying with your BEST application and haven’t skipped over step 2).    

Okay, like it or not (and there are plenty of detractors about this reality), applying early does, in fact, improve your odds for admission. The data collected by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) is crystal clear on this front.  According to their most recently released data, your odds increase dramatically if you apply Early Decision (ED) (on average your odds go from 5.5 in 10 to 7 in 10) and a small amount if you apply Early Action (EA) (on average your odds go from 6.5 in 10 to 7 in 10).  State of College Admission 2010 Report (NACAC).  The data for those that apply Restrictive Early Action (REA) is not broken out, but since it is a “half-way” kind of program, it would be reasonable to guess that the odds improve more than EA and less than ED. Now, these are averages based on a huge variety of colleges, so don’t assume you increase your odds this much, but even at the most selective colleges you do improve your odds.

So what is the forecast for Kim?   She improves her odds most at the ED colleges on her list: BU, GW, American, Columbia, and NYU. She improves her odds somewhat at the EA/REA colleges on her list: BC, Harvard, UMA, Georgetown, and UVa.   Now it is time to move to the final step and put all this information together into a cohesive strategy that serves Kim.   

Step 4:  Evaluate whether applying early really helps you get into the college where you want to go.   

All too many applicants get so caught up in the swirl of anxiety and activity that they forget to take a deep breath and double check whether an early application strategy actually serves them.  Just because you can apply early and it improves your odds for admission doesn’t mean you should apply early. You really should apply early only if it serves your goals.  

So let’s take a deep breath on Kim’s behalf and help her evaluate whether applying early serves her.  

The first question Kim needs to ask herself is “Do I have a first choice college?  Actually in Kim’s case, she does, but it isn’t the college you might expect from her list.  Her first choice college is actually Georgetown.  Harvard is too "hometown" and Columbia is in her third choice location - NYC.

The second question she needs to ask herself is, "What is the upside to applying early to my first choice college?"  Well, as you know from above, it improves her odds for admission by a small amount (because Georgetown is EA, not ED).    So that's good, but not great.

The third question she needs to ask herself is, "What is the downside to applying early to my first choice college?"  Ah.  Again here is where the fine print matters.  Turns out, Georgetown does not deny anyone who applies early.  They either admit or defer the applicant to reconsideration with the regular applicant pool.  So in this case, Kim has no downside.   

With those three questions answered, it all seems easy peasy and obvious (but of course, that is only because Kim has done her homework and done her thinking) -- Kim should definitely apply early to Georgetown. 

One final word:  please exhibit integrity in this process.  

If you sign an early decision agreement that binds you to accept the offer of admission provided the financial aid package meets your need, then you should do that.  If you are applying early to a college that limits you to applying early to one AND only one college, then apply early to only one.  If you don’t know why exhibiting integrity is not only the right thing, but also the best thing to do, then prepare yourself for a painful lesson somewhere along your life’s journey.  There are worse things than being denied by a college….such as jail. Enough said.

Comments or Questions?

Post your own dilemma about applying early -- we'll crowd source the analysis.  Or share some knowledge about early programs -- consider it a random act of kindness to your fellow applicants!  

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad.  Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)